Assertive communication: making and receiving criticism

The ability to make and receive criticism is one of the essential elements of  assertive communication.  As A. Lazarus said “Expressing a criticism is difficult, but not impossible”.

First of all, it is necessary to distinguish between constructive / effective criticisms and manipulative / negative ones , understood as incorrect in the way they are addressed. Of course, it is good to try to express those of the first category mentioned, which are described with the following characteristics:

  • they aim at behavior
  • they are specific and situational
  • counteract the action (e.g. wrong, incomplete, imprecise)
  • they start from the negative to go to the positive
  • they express the cognitive part and do not invade the affective part

manipulative ones, on the other hand:

  • they aim at the person
  • they are generic and all-encompassing
  • contrast identity (e.g. guilt, anxiety, sense of inadequacy)
  • they start from the negative to degenerate into the intensified negative
  • they express both the cognitive and the affective part

Here are the points to keep in mind when making a criticism:

  • contact the interested party directly
  • treat in private rather than public
  • avoid comparisons
  • avoid sarcasm and irony
  • do not allow disputes to accumulate
  • address one topic at a time
  • don’t apologize
  • don’t say “always”, “never”, “anyway”
  • talk more about themselves than the interlocutor
  • suggest a realistic and acceptable solution

Instead, this is a useful reminder for when you get a criticism:

  • placing criticism in a specific and concrete space
  • not to feel challenged globally as a person every time
  • I would not allow to be labeled, but to specify the specificity of one’s mistake
  • ask for concrete and detailed explanations to understand which aspects of the criticism are founded and which are unfounded
  • ask the other for useful suggestions for a positive outcome of the criticism
  • on the points of disagreement seek a satisfactory mediation for both

Within the assertiveness training  there are also specific techniques, called “defense”. They are taught and used to enable people to “remain” assertive even in all those more critical situations, in which it can be difficult not to deviate towards passive and / or aggressive behaviors. Let’s see them specifically:

Technique of the “Broken Disc” : it is necessary to avoid getting involved by insistent people or who implement manipulative strategies. It consists in calmly repeating one’s point of view, always using the same words, without providing other explanations. It is also useful to use when we make a request that it is our right to demand.

“Fogging” (or fogging): one accepts the opinion / criticism / request of the other, admitting that there may be some truth, without however justifying oneself. Eg. “I understand your point of view”, “You are probably right”, or using a paraphrase, a reformulation. The aim is to “confuse”, accepting the criticism made to us but, at the same time, calm the interlocutor, “displacing him”, and then open a clarifying dialogue. You listen to what the person says and, using his words or the like, you recognize his need but also state his point of view.

“Negative Inquiry”:  used to transform generic manipulative phrases into specific and constructive criticisms, eg. “Could you please tell me where I went wrong?” .

“Negative Assertion” : consists in admitting our mistake and apologizing. Its goal is to reduce hostility and tend to extinguish manipulation.

“Selective deafness”: involves refusing to talk about a certain topic, neither commenting nor replying. For example, when someone insists on arguing even though we have made it clear that we no longer intend to talk about it. Sometimes it is useful to reiterate our attitude with phrases such as: “I understood correctly, but from now on I have no intention of answering you. We have already discussed this topic and you know how I think. If you still talk about it, I’ll pretend I don’t hear from you. On any other subject I am willing to discuss, but not on this one ”. After that, you really need to say nothing more about the subject in question, even if provoked.

“Postponement”: Sometimes you can neutralize the anger of someone who is unjustifiably aggressive if you agree to continue the conversation only if they stop using certain tones. You can say, for example: “I am willing to talk about it, but I can’t when if you are so angry. Calm down first, and then we will discuss it ”. The commitment to availability must naturally be respected if the interlocutor truly calms down.

– “Separate the components”:  this is a useful technique to contrast those who want to push others to act as they wish, mixing different aspects and plans. We must not be confused or misled. For example, we may hear a friend say: “Of course if you refuse to lend me the money I asked for, you don’t really care about me.” In this case it is important to distinguish the two components (ie friendship and money loan), saying for example: “It is not true that I do not care about you, but I am not going to lend you money”. For maximum effectiveness, this technique can be combined with that of the “Broken Disc”.

We have therefore seen how assertiveness is a transdiagnostic ability, that is, useful in a variety of clinical disorders but its training is very often effective even in the non-clinical population. The assertiveness training , albeit much less present in today’s research, continues to be a “widely used and essential” tool in the repertoire of behavioral and cognitive orientation therapist.


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